A painting of Theodore Roosevelt galloping into battle was behind him. A portrait of Franklin Roosevelt was directly to his right. And on his own face, a grim picture of determination. In remarks Tuesday, President Biden described how America has been in a crisis, her future very much in doubt, but how there is now hope for renewal at the end of a national trial.
He was discussing his desire for Congress to pass his preferred budget package to “win the future” and “take the next step” in overcoming the economic challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic. Only after five minutes of citing boilerplate details about congressional negotiations and domestic spending priorities did the president turn his attention to the chaos consuming Afghanistan.
The speech, delayed by more than four hours, lasted less than 12 minutes and illustrated how this White House is clinging to Biden’s promise of a return to normal at home amid the foreign policy catastrophe playing out in real-time on cable news. And yet, the word from the commander-in-chief was that he plans to stick by his deadline for withdrawing the U.S. completely from Afghanistan. Despite pleas from allies around the world, Biden said the frantic evacuation efforts underway would end on Aug. 31, a date conditional on continued cooperation from the Taliban, who have said that it is their “red line.”
“The sooner we can finish, the better,” Biden said of the withdrawal, arguing that the longer the U.S. stayed on the ground, the greater the risk of a terrorist attack. “Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K [Islamic State Khorasan] is seeking to target the airport, attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians.”
He announced the Pentagon and State Department were drawing up contingency plans in case it took longer to get Americans out but added that he is “determined to ensure we complete our mission.” When exactly is the deadline, though, a reporter had asked the White House press secretary about an hour earlier. Was the understanding between the U.S. and the Taliban that time runs out at midnight on Aug. 31 or midnight Aug. 30? And was that Eastern Standard Time or Afghan time?
It is a pertinent question – perhaps a life-and-death question for those in the human wave descending on the Kabul airport, desperate for a flight out of the country. But Jen Psaki told Peter Alexander of NBC News she wasn’t sure. “I want to give you a very clear and articulate answer from the team on the ground,” she explained. “So, I’ll just have to get back to you.”
While the president and his aides have repeatedly stated their commitment to evacuating all Americans who want to leave the country, Psaki bristled the day before at questions based on reporting from Kabul that some Americans are unable to make it past Taliban barricades to the airport, let alone catch a flight home. “I think it’s irresponsible to say Americans are stranded. They are not,” she said Monday. “We are committed to bringing Americans who want to come home, home.” Twenty-four hours later, the press secretary was recruiting the press in the evacuation efforts.
“If we are not in touch with this individual, give me their contact information and we will get in touch with them,” Psaki told Peter Doocy of Fox News when he read her reports of U.S. citizens unable to physically get to the airport. Then she turned to the rest of the reporters in the room. “If any of you are hearing from American citizens who can’t reach us, give me their contact information, and we will get in contact with them,” she said.
Compounding the challenges, the U.S. government apparently does not even know the number of U.S. passport holders stuck in Afghanistan. Psaki was asked about the very real possibility of an American being left behind after Aug. 31. “We expect there could be some,” she said, “but I’m not going to get into it further.”
More than 70,000 people have been evacuated so far, according to the latest totals from the administration, a number that grows by the hour as flights continue 24/7. And the White House is eager to highlight that tally, with Psaki describing the operation as “a success” and the president’s chief of staff, Ronald Klain, all but describing the effort as a second “Berlin airlift.”
The public optimism of the administration, however, seems worlds apart from the sentiment on the ground. A U.S. Embassy official in Kabul, according to a State Department diplomatic cable obtained by NBC News, reported saying that “it would be better to die under the Taliban’s bullet” than face the crowds again. And without giving the White House a heads-up, Democrat Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Republican Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan hopped a flight into the country. Both are military veterans and said in a joint statement that they were on the ground “to conduct oversight on the mission to evacuate Americans and our allies.”
Back in Washington, Biden met virtually with representatives of the G-7 nations. He reported back that the allies stand united in warning the Taliban, “We’ll judge them by their actions, and we’ll stay in close coordination on any steps that we take moving forward.”
Last week, in an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, the president said the Taliban is “going through sort of an existential crisis about do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government.”
When National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was asked why the president thinks the Taliban is worried about how they will be viewed on the world stage, given that they are already going door-to-door hunting our Afghan allies, Sullivan conceded that “they have been responsible for the deaths of American men and women through two decades of war” and insisted that “we have no illusions about the Taliban.”
The Biden administration would prefer turning the page on history—and questions about the Taliban. For the first time in his presidency, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, more Americans disapprove than approve of the job Biden is doing. His approval/disapproval rating stands at 46.6%-48.9%.
Those numbers have not persuaded the president to abandon his two-track strategy of emphasizing domestic politics and international affairs concurrently. On Monday, he hosted two on-camera events: an update on the fight against the coronavirus and a celebration of the Seattle Storm’s WNBA championship. He didn’t mention Afghanistan at either. The last word from the president’s team on Tuesday? An explanation of the colorful lights illuminating the northern lawn.
“Tonight, the White House is lit up in red, white, and blue in support of Team USA and all of the Paralympians proudly representing our country in Tokyo,” read the last official statement of the day from the administration. “Go Team USA!”